WASHINGTON – A divided Senate began the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Tuesday in utter acrimony, as Republicans blocked Democrats’ efforts to subpoena documents related to Ukraine and moderate Republicans forced last-minute changes to rules that had been tailored to the president’s wishes.
In a series of party-line votes punctuating hours of debate, Senate Republicans turned back repeated attempts by Democrats to subpoena documents from the White House, the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget that could shed light on the core charges against Trump. More votes were to come throughout the evening on Democratic efforts to subpoena current and former White House officials, although the outcome was expected to be the same.
The debate between the House impeachment managers and the president’s legal team played out in a Senate chamber transformed for the occasion, with Chief Justice John Roberts presiding from the marble rostrum and senators sworn to silence looking on from desks piled with briefing books. It was the substantive start of the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.
On its face, Tuesday’s debate was a technical one about the rules and procedures to govern the trial. But it set the stage for a broader political fight over Trump’s likely acquittal that will persist long after the proceeding is over, helping shape the 2020 campaign.
Democrats were laying the groundwork to argue that the trial was a coverup rigged on Trump’s behalf and to denounce Republicans — including the most vulnerable senators seeking re-election in politically competitive states — for acquiescing. Republicans, for their part, insisted that the Senate must move decisively to remedy what they characterized as an illegitimate impeachment inquiry unjustly tarring the presidency.
Standing in the well of the Senate, the Democratic House impeachment managers urged senators to reject proposed rules from the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, that would delay a debate over witnesses and documents until the middle of the trial, with no guarantee that they would ever be called.
“If the Senate votes to deprive itself of witnesses and documents, the opening statements will be the end of the trial,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead manager. He said McConnell’s proposal was tantamount to saying, “Let’s have the trial, and maybe we can just sweep this all under the rug.”
If adopted, the resolution would pave the way for the trial to move forward as soon as Wednesday afternoon with oral arguments from the House managers presenting the case for removing Trump that they previewed Tuesday.
At the heart of the trial are charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress approved last month by the Democratic-led House. They assert that Trump used the power of his office to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into his political rivals, withholding as leverage nearly $400 million in military aid and a White House meeting. The president then sought to conceal his actions from Congress, the charges say, by blocking witness testimony and documents.
Trump’s legal team argues that the charges are baseless and amount to criminalizing a president’s prerogative to make foreign policy as he sees fit. In a break with most constitutional scholars, they also claim that the impeachment was unconstitutional because the articles of impeachment do not outline a specific violation of a law.
But on Tuesday, the debate focused principally on what would constitute a fair trial.
“This initial step will offer an early signal to our country,” McConnell said before it got underway. “Can the Senate still serve our founding purpose?”
Yet McConnell also received a sharp reminder on Tuesday about the limits of his power to control an inherently unpredictable proceeding with few precedents. Under pressure from Republican moderates, he was forced to make some last-minute changes to the set of rules he unveiled on Monday, which would have squeezed opening arguments by both sides into two 12-hour marathon days and refused to admit the findings of the House impeachment inquiry into evidence without a separate vote later in the trial.
The compressed timetable was in line with a White House request to quickly dispense with opening arguments so that Trump’s team could complete his defense before the weekend.
But Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among others, objected privately to those provisions, which they believed departed too much from procedures adopted unanimously by the Senate for the 1999 trial of President Bill Clinton. At a closed-door luncheon with Republican senators in the Capitol just before the trial was to begin, the senators raised their objections, according to aides familiar with the conversation, and McConnell rushed to submit a revised copy of the resolution — with lines crossed out and changes scrawled in pen in the margins — when it was time for the debate.
When the resolution was read aloud on the Senate floor, two days had been extended to three and the House’s records would be automatically admitted into evidence, although McConnell inserted a new provision that would allow Trump’s team to move to throw out parts of the House case.
The last-minute reversal underscored the outsize influence of a small group of moderate Republicans in the narrowly divided Senate whose interests and demands could prove decisive to shaping the impeachment trial, beginning next week in a more formal debate over witnesses and documents.
But in the Senate chamber, Trump’s lawyers replayed for senators many of his most frequent and personal grievances, accusing Democrats in only slightly more lawyerly terms of conducting a political search-and-destroy mission that the president rails about daily on Twitter.
“It’s long past time that we start this so we can put an end to this ridiculous charade and go have an election,” said Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel.
Democrats, who came armed with digital slides and video clips to drive home their arguments, spent hours detailing the factual record compiled by the House investigation and cataloging the witnesses and documents Trump had succeeded in withholding. Senators facing such a grave decision as removing a president, they argued, have a responsibility to try to push all the facts to light.
“With the backing of a subpoena authorized by the chief justice of the United States, you can end President Trump’s obstruction,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the first woman in history to speak on the Senate floor as a House impeachment manager. “If the Senate fails to take this step, you won’t even ask for the evidence. This trial and your verdict will be questioned.”
Inside the chamber, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, forced separate votes on demanding documents and planned more on compelling testimony from four current and former Trump administration officials who were blocked from speaking with the House: John Bolton, the former White House national security adviser; Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff; Robert Blair, an adviser to Mulvaney; and Michael Duffey, a White House budget official.
Each time, McConnell moved to kill the proposal before it could be considered and was sustained by unified Republican support.
“This is the fair road map for our trial,” McConnell declared. “We need it in place before we can move forward. So the Senate should prepare to remain in session today until we complete this resolution and adopt it.”